A series of massacres in eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the last three months underline the resurgence of a little known Islamist militant organization, the Alliance of Democratic Forces – National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (ADF-NALU). On December 7, attacks believed to have been carried out by ADF-NALU in Oicha, in DRC’s North Kivu province, left at least 36 people dead. The group also reportedly massacred more than 250 people in total in North Kivu in 16 other separate incidents between October 2 and December 7 (IRIN, December 10, 2014). All these attacks followed similar patterns, with the assailants arriving at night and deliberately slaughtering women and children (al-Jazeera, December 7, 2014). In most of the attacks, crude weapons were used, including knives, axes, machetes, hammers, rocks and hoes, as well as some firearms. Typically, victims were blindfolded, using clothes or pieces of mosquito nets, before being butchered (IRIN, December 10, 2014). The recent growth of ADF-NALU – as well as its increased capabilities and allegations of links with other African Islamist militant groups such as al-Shabaab – fit into a broader pattern of Islamist militant groups spreading across several parts of the continent, including in Cameroon, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria and elsewhere.
ADF-NALU is one of the oldest militant groups in eastern DRC, having been active in the Rowezori Mountains, near the Uganda border in North Kivu province, since 1995. However, in the last three years, the group has strengthened considerably and has expanded its territorial range, notably carrying out a number of attacks near the eastern DRC town of Beni (Africa Review, December 7, 2014). It has also reportedly retrained its fighters and dispersed them in small groups to thwart and hamper reprisal attacks by Congolese forces, (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo – FARDC) or the UN. The group has also recently become extremely mobile, frequently moving its headquarters and base of operations (IRIN, January 27, 2014).
Historically, ADF–NALU is a product of the union between Islamic fundamentalists hailing from the highly conservative Tablighi Jamaat group and the remnants of the Islamic National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU) (Assist News, October 22, 2014). It also includes some Muslim ex-commanders from the army of Idi Amin, the former president of Uganda. As well as from within the DRC, ADF-NALU draws its members from nearby countries such as Uganda, Tanzania and Somalia (IRIN, January 27, 2014). In its early stages, it also reportedly received support from external figures such as the former DRC president (then Zaire) Mobutu Sese Seko and Sudan’s leading Islamist, Hassan al-Turabi (Pambazuka News, April 30, 2009).
ADF-NALU was founded by Shaykh Jamil Mukulu in 1989. Mukulu (born David Steven) initially belonged to the Catholic faith and was reportedly known to be very critical of the Islam, but after he converted he rapidly became a hardline Islamist, likely as a result of his early exposure to Tablighi Jamaat teachings. He is believed to have spent the early 1990s in Khartoum in Sudan, where he allegedly became close to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and several other Islamists who had taken refuge there (al-Jazeera, December 24, 2013). Various reports have alleged that Mukulu received extensive training in Sudan and also Afghanistan following his stay with Bin Laden in Sudan, although this cannot be confirmed.  Further unconfirmed reports alleged ADF-NALU has sought funding from al-Qaeda to start a jihadist front in central Africa (Max Security, September 23, 2013). Regardless of the truth of such rumors, Mukulu remains the group’s supreme leader, despite being under UN sanctions since 2011 for his actions in the DRC.  However, he has not been seen in public recently, having gone underground since the defeat of ADF-NALU in western Uganda in the early 2000s.
In addition to Mukulu, Hood Lukwago serves as the ADF-NALU’s military commander and Amis Kasadha as his deputy. Musa Baluku is the organisation’s chief judge and chief political commissar. Mohammad Kayiira is the head of combat operations, while Benjamin Kisikolanio is the head of internal intelligence. Filipo Bogere is the head of special operations (The Observer [Kampala], January 10, 2013).
Under guidance these radical leaders, ADF-NALU has turned into a hardened, well-financed and disciplined outfit in the last few years. With an estimated force of between 800-1,400 fighters, the ADF-NALU is a resilient, highly organized group and is increasingly active in conducting attacks. Early last year, Emilie Serralta, the coordinator of the UN Group of Experts on DRC, reported to the Security Council that ADF-NALU had grown in strength and was carrying out bold attacks against civilians, humanitarian workers and UN peacekeepers.  According to Serralta’s letter, the group allegedly has several training camps in the DRC, where it stocks lethal weapons such as mortars, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. It has reportedly further boosted its fighting force through forced recruitments and kidnappings.
From its bases in the DRC, the group is believed to fund itself through illegal gold mining and timber smuggling. Since November 2011, Mukulu has allegedly been sending jihadists for training in Somalia. The group also reportedly maintains a network of cars and motorcycle taxis operating between the DRC towns of Beni, Butembo and Oicha, which generates some income. Some financial support also allegedly comes through money transfers from London, Kenya and Uganda, which are directed to the group’s intermediaries in Beni and Butembo (IRIN, January 27, 2014).
The initial aim of the ADF-NALU was to overthrow Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, and to replace his government with an overtly “Islamic” one. The group became operational in 1995, committing some terrorist attacks in western Uganda. It chose this region to begin its operations as the region is mountainous, had an existing conflict and was close to the DRC border. In subsequent years, however, the Ugandan Army would pile military pressure on the group, finally driving it out of the region and across the DRC border in 2002 (Assist News, October 22, 2014; Reuters, April 22, 2014; Red Pepper, May 21, 2014). In its most recent attacks in late 2014, many of its killings have been carried out near positions held by FARDC and bases of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in DRC (Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo – MONUSCO) such as those in Beni, which has several bases (Africa Review, October 18, 2014).
In response to the group’s growing presence over the last year, regional and international forces have struck back, with some operations apparently succeeding in temporarily disrupting the group. Most notably, in April 2014, the Uganda military claimed that Mukulu fled his hideout in Virunga National Park in the DRC after a UN-backed offensive destroyed camps belonging to his militia, including his main camp “Medina” (Inyenyeri News, April 22, 2014). This follows previous attacks on the groups by FARDC, which conducted operations against the group in Eastern Kivu region in January 2014, following FARDC’s successful removal of the M23 militia. At the same time, however, it should be noted that the groups has survived such offensives before, notably Ugandan operations against it in eastern DRC in 2000, 2005 and 2010, in part because of the group’s successful integration into the cross-border economy and society and because of corruption in the security forces (IRIN, December 10, 2014; Enough Project, January 29, 2014).
Connections with al-Shabaab
During the last several years, the Ugandan government, and particularly the Ugandan military, has alleged that the ADF–NALU has allied itself with Somalia’s al-Shabaab militants, who are fighting against the African Union backed government in Somalia, which is itself supported by Ugandan troops (The Observer [Kampala], July 14, 2013; Reuters, January 17, 2014). Sources suggest that al-Shabaab fighters from Somalia have been fighting with the ADF-NALU, helping organize attacks in the DRC. Foreign Arabic speakers of unknown origin are also said to have conducted military training with the group in the DRC, although this cannot be confirmed (Enough Project, January 29, 2014).
Such an expansion of al-Shabaab’s activities would not be either surprising or unexpected, however. For instance, al-Shabaab has attacked Uganda in the past, most notably when it conducted multiple suicide bomb attacks in the Ugandan capital Kampala during screenings of the football World Cup in July 2010. In addition, throughout 2010, Islamist militant groups across Africa have increased their attacks and spread across a number of weak borders, sharing logistics, resources, information, funds and resources; examples include Nigeria’s Boko Haram group conducting attacks in northern Cameroon, while in East Africa, al-Shabaab has carried out a number of deadly attacks inside Kenya, where it has built a cross-border network of supporters and sympathizers (Reuters, December 28). In this context, an expansion into the DRC would be a logical next step.
The rise of ADF-NALU, which has been marked by a steady stream of massacres and atrocities in eastern DRC, is a clear indication that the country has the potential to become a new breeding ground for Islamist militancy. Indeed, the DRC’s long-standing status as a borderline “failed state,” with limited government control, porous borders, abundant – and unregulated – natural resources and a range of disenfranchised Muslim minority groups, arguably makes it an obvious target for any ambitious Islamist organization in the region.
Given the country’s central position in Africa, this development poses a potentially major security threat to governments in Africa, civil society organizations operating there, and the international community at large. In particular, if al-Shabaab is able to establish a foothold there, the consequences could be severe. At present, however, ADF-NALU scarcely features on the international radar, and the few attempts to tackle it are being made through military action. There has been little thought given to other approaches, for instance, engaging local communities, which currently provide the bulk of ADF-NALU’s local foot-soldiers.
Sunguta West is an independent journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
1. See, for example: David H. Shinn, “Al-Qaeda in East Africa and the Horn,” Journal of Conflict Studies (2007).
2. “Sanctions Committee Concerning Democratic Republic of Congo Adds One Individual to Assets Freeze, Travel Ban List,” UN Security Council Press Release, October 13, 2011, https://www.un.org/press/en/2011/sc10410.doc.htm.
3. “Letter dated 22 January 2014 from the Coordinator of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo addressed to the President of the Security Council,” https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_2014_42.pdf.